Conan Acheronian Edition

Session XXVIII: All Is Not Well in the Temple of the Ivory Goddess
Even in Messantia, there are things gold can not buy...

With their cover blown, our anti-heroes decided to leave Messentia. The priests of Mitra would not give the reward they had promised earlier, as the cult of the Golden King had gotten away with Tranicos. They would, however, write a letter of recommendation which might assist the Nemedians in their quest for the Scrolls of Vathelos, one part of which was held in a temple of Ishtar in an Ophirean town on the banks of the Red River.

They faced a dire dilemma, however: Exiting the city of coin could prove hazardous, as they were now hunted by both the city militia and guild mercenaries. As the men weighed their options, a shadowy messenger arrived on their doorstep. Niccolo, the purveyor of information the Nemedians had previously dealt with, offered to arrange the men safe egress from Messentia. In return for the bone Ankh that had damned Noam the archer, the men would be driven to the Ophirean border in covered wagons, eblazoned with royal heraldry, ensuring safe and uninterrupted passage. Grudgingly, the adventurers accepted the offer.

Planning ahead, Tyrus and Dionysos decided that they would try to reach the Nemedian border before the weather worsened, as entry into Nemedia lay at a point where the Border Range melded into the Karpash range, and snowfall wound be a great hindrance to the large group of travellers. Should the internal strife in Ophir cause great trouble, the men would chance a crossing into Aquilonia, though still following the river: Aquilonia would still be in turmoil after the war, and the Road of Kings could be hazardous, especially now that the Nemedians were cursed with ill fortune.

Basil proposed a different route, suggesting the band take a detour into Koth, stopping to pay tribute to Pelias, the new master of the Crimson Citadel, whom he much desired to meet. He enticed Dionysos with the prospect of learning what had transpired during the time he was known as Lord Bhaal, and what purpose this “possession” had served. The others dismissed this idea, as it would mean prolonging the journey by at least another six months.

Reaching Lodier in Ophir after nearly two weeks of travel, the band found the local temple of Ishtar empty. The locals were in turmoil, and were about to burn a number of witches. They planned to burn the temple next, as the Mitran majority blamed the followers of Ishtar of sorcery. Tyrus and Luba went to witness the event, relishing in the irony of the situation, with the only withces present at the witch-burning being in the crowd of jeering savages rather than on the pyre. They came away disgusted and saddened, as it was obvious that the poor wretches were merely scapegoats for the misery that the civil war had inflicted on the community.

After some inquiry, the travellers learned that the staff of the local temple of the Ivory Goddess had fled to a fortified temple on an island upstream. After a night spent in a mediocre inn, the party took off upriver, leaving the majority of the band behind under the charge of Luba. In a curious turn of events, as dawn broke, Basil began to walk towards the river, as if in a state of somnambulism. He managed to wade into the river, with the water reaching his waist, before Alcemides forcefully removed him from the chilly embrace of the Red River.

Reaching the crossing post to the temple, the band, accompanied by Gabai Av Pteor, an itinerant champion of Ishtar alarmed by the odd occurances in the area, found a single small raft. It was incapable of bearing the weight of their horses, which the men were then forced to leave behind. Cursed as they were, the young witches and the half-savage were certain that they would not see their mounts again. The temple had thick stone walls with ramparts, but seemed poorly defended, with only two guards, who let the foreigners through when shown the letter given by the scholarly priests of Messentia. Inside the walls was a magnificent garden where grew both the Upas-tree and, somewhat surprisingly, the tree which bore the Apples of Derketa.

The men were eventually brought before a grotesquely obese man with the mixed features of a Kothian, by the name of Khossus. The Nemedians introduced themselves as travelling students of the arcane, interested in obscure scrolls in the possession of the temple. Tyrus presented the letter of recommendation, which the priest read without much enthusiasm. Obviously a very corrupt man, he was quite visibly elated by the gift of lotus and gold the Nemedians gave him after deciding that another approach was needed, and promised them full access to the storerooms the scrolls were held in, though they would have to wait until the next day due to festivities taking place that night. Inquiries about the priestess in charge of the temple raised some alarm in the adventurers, as Khossus told them she was last seen leaving the island in the company of a tall, pale woman matching the description of Nefertari, the Stygian vampiress. The men were led to their chambers, where they set about plotting their next move nervously. Alcemides would have none of it, and took off to explore the monastic fortress alone.

Meanwhile, a thick fog was raising from the river…

Session XXVII: The Tombs of the Witch Kings
Where even stolen riches are taxed.

From the Memoirs of Tyrus the First

I have to admit that my taste for ancient sepulchres had waned a lot since Pteion, but the other group members except Alcemides were determined in their resolve to visit and loot the tombs of the witch-kings. The pict was very pessimistic about our chances of survival, and I was partial to his opinion, but in my calculations, I was still quite a bit short of the necessary investment for any meaningful title. This would surely be the last time. Once I had the money, I surely wouldn’t risk my life so easily, and the money from the nobility would allow me to copy the sets of scrolls in Belverus’s university library.

Anyway, Dionysos had probed the tombs with his minds eye. The insides of the actual tomb were off limits to his sight, but as we had expected, the way to the entrance resided behind one of the large statues we found while searching for the librarian. Thus, we knew the easy way in and wouldn’t have to wander the streets of Tartarus excessively. A welcome change.

After a couple of days of preparation and planning, we descended into the darkness. Unable to find any opening mechanism from the statue, we were forced to soften the thick and hard stone with the Atlantean Stone Eater before finally breaking through. The broken doorway then revealed an endless, fifty foot wide pit with ledges spaced evenly each sixty feet of depth. About three ledges down was the entrance we were looking for. Corridors extended in both east and west, and since the former one supposedly lead to the tombs, and the other to a chamber filled with treasure. Even though it seemed too good to be true, we decided to investigate the treasure chamber first.

The western corridor was long and narrow, and Alcemides, with his eyes of a cat and sharp reflexes, was advancing first. Dionysos remained in the main ledge to guard our backs (or perhaps just out of cowardice), and Ditrius chose to remain in the inn, choosing not to abandon his charges, should he perish.

Here, even the traps were lavish and displayed elegance. The first one Alcemides avoided, and a whole barrage of demon-fire dropped harmlessly on the floor. The second he missed and I accidentally activated it. My face was sprayed with the maddening gray lotus dust. I remember little of the consequences.Basil and Alcemides later told me that I had lunged around ravenously, almost blinding Basil and killing Alcemides. Fortunately Basil had managed to restrain me, but how the scrawny weakling had managed that, I never found out. Alcemides shrugged at his wounds and we kept on, avoiding a falling slab trap and finding a yet another door, which seemed suspiciously cold to the touch. When thinking about the matter and the validity of Dionysos’s visions in general, the whole door seemed suspicious. Alcemides knocked the slab, and from the echoes, claimed that the room was probably filled with water. Sensing a trap, we struck my climbing cleats into the wall and tied Alcemides to them before returning to the ledge and opening the door.

As expected, a thousand barrels of water rushed through, safely draining to the bottomless pit. Alcemides had weathered the flow hanging on to his rope and came back to inform that the door simply revealed a round room with a modest altar. As if to mock us, on the altar was placed a pile of copper coins, and we found nothing else despite our best efforts. Stranger yet, the room was both dry and nowhere big enough to hold the torrent of water that had supposedly gushed forth from it. The coins were stamped with a face of asexual beauty with a throughly amused grin. Dionysos later speculated the coins to be a jest or a taunt by a guardian demon set to watch over the tombs and had the likeness of the creature.

Back at the main intersection, I chose to descend the ledges a bit. At around two hundred feet, our ropes fell short and the ledges remained plain and uninteresting. When dropped, the waning light of a torch revealed little about the depth. Bewildered by this, I left the matter be and climbed back up. At the time, I understood nothing about the purpose and means of construction of such pits, and it suffices to say that its scale was truly disheartening. It is fortunate that I had other matters to think about, as my present knowledge suggests that spending such a long time in such pits is not the best of ideas.

When I returned, my companions had pried open a couple of coffers that decorated the walls of the crypt entrance. None of them contained any valuables, but did have mummified husks of ancient warriors in deteriorated pitch-black plate mail. When investigated closer, the tongues and eyes of the mummies proved to be in perfect shape and as moist and colorful as they probably were in life. Wary of this discovery, Alcemides pried open all the coffers and threw the lifeless bodies into the pit. We then proceeded to break the crypt door with picks and acid.

The first chamber merely contained a carriage, built of strangely well-preserved wood and generously decorated with gold and silver. At first it seemed that this would be a treasure in itself, but Basil, with his knowledge of alchemy, knew from weight that the metal parts were merely gold-plated steel. There had to be another treasure, and thus we pushed forward.

The next door was easier to open and revealed an extremely large chamber that contained a miniature of an entire city. The phallic architecture led us to believe it to be Tartarus itself, and I must admit that the craftsmanship was extraordinary in both scale and attention to detail. While such a find would be completely invaluable to a historian, even the prettiest temples would be difficult to pry out and transport to the surface, and thus it was without value to us.

A more through search of the whole room revealed a lot of writing in the south wall and more on a terrace circling the whole chamber. Suspecting it to be important, both I and Dionysos spent some time investigating the acheronian writing. Such it was, indeed. The engravings confirmed what the scrolls had previously hinted about the insignificance of the brief rule of man in this world, and the true masters of cosmos that would come both before us and after us. Even though this was merely writing on the wall by long-dead madmen, through the connection with the scrolls, I was filled with utter certainty that it was true. Such knowledge shook me to the very bone, but for some reason I can’t really understand, the revelation did not make me lose hope. In Dionysos’s eyes, I saw the comforting and engrossing gleam of madness, as surely the same knowledge had crushed some of his humanity.

The young pervert snapped out of his trance when Alcemides came to tell us that he had found a new path. In the east wall, there was a concealed door that opened into a surprisingly large, well-preserved corridor lined with torches, which still proved to be in operational condition. The corridor led to a smaller door, behind which bellowed the noises of a lively ball with countless nobility chattering and dancing to their hearts content. This insanity stopped us on our tracks, but Alcemides braved the mirage and soon instructed us to follow. While inside the room, its reality was revealed, and the mummified corpses of an acheronian court were found sitting in tables and benches on the walls. the room was large, but again seemed to just have a single exit to a narrow stone corridor, whose ending finally revealed what we were looking for.

The tombchamber of the witch kings was a septagon-shaped room with one face relief-encrusted door on each of the walls except for the entrance. The center of the room was decorated by a man-sized phallic obelisk the likes of which we had already seen in the city miniature. All seemed to be in order and soon the whole entourage was inside discussing the next move and deciphering the names of the six witch-kings. A moment later we were again surprised by a trap.

In my recollection, we had taken the utmost care in our each step, but alas, I was not swift enough to notice the lowering door. Alcemides dove to safety, but the rest of us were trapped when water – yet again – begun to pour from the ceiling. As if to mock us, the trap had been designed to kill slowly and minutes would pass before we would be left out of breath. We searched for an exit feverishly and Alcemides tried everything he could to break the door. However, it was extremely thick and even the stone eater would not help him to save us in time. Suddenly Basil formed an idea about pushing the images of the witch-kings in sequence, and guided by some clues neither I nor Dionysos saw, proceeded to guess the combination and disarm the trap. The water drained away almost instantly, and Alcemides joined us in looting the tombs.

We decided that it would be best to be as quick as possible. Each chose a chamber and grabbed as much as he could. For some reason, I seemed to draw the short end of the stick, as the tomb I chose was simply filled with utility articles made out of bones and human skin. Despite feeling that such items would be almost completely without value for everyone except the most deranged collectors, I grabbed numerous examples and managed to find precious stones lodged into some of the most delicate ones. There was also a small locker that contained a silver box with a large black pearl. Unable to find anything else, I took another door and saw a completely bare chamber with an incredibly large set of armor and weaponry resting behind three barrels. The armor was worn and way too large to transport, but the set had two jewel-encrusted scabbards – one for a poniard and one for a longsword. The poniard proved to be missing, but the longsword was present, though broken in half. It still seemed incredibly decorated and valuable, and the blade was made of strange metal. Even with half of its length missing, the blade was long enough to be used by a man of my size.

Delighted with finding the pretty scabbards, I broke the barrels which would surely be full of valuables. Unfortunately, I found just ash. I couldn’t believe my eyes and dug inside the ash for anything, but found only child bones and more ash. I broke the other barrels and fell them to the floor, but the contents were similar. The room had no sarcophagus, no lockers and nothing else of value. Almost furious by such mocking trickery, I ran to a third door, but opening it revealed a revolting mess of mummified human organs and bones knit and molten into impossible constructions. I again use these strange words, but they are the best ones I can fathom as behind the door was the tomb of the Boneweaver. She had apparently built a lot more than the Ankh, as the chamber was filled from ground to roof with such contraptions. In the light of my lantern, I saw many precious gems and trinklets, but simply couldn’t bear to enter. An unnatural sense of dread and despair forced my shaking hands to reseal the door. The others found me collapsed from its base and motioned for departure. I saw Basil open the door slightly and reach for the darkness, but even he seemed unable to enter the room and recoiled shortly thereafter. From what I gathered, the others had been luckier than I, with the three other chambers practically filled with riches and elegant art objects. Dionysos was also carrying three large tablets of gold that were completely covered with small, strange inscriptions.

The road back to the corridors of the buried city was uneventful. Dionysos kept on hurrying us, as he had experienced a vision of something rising from the pit. Nothing came, however, and when ascending, we also saw that the roof was designed to be able to crush climbers, but it remained as still as the pit. Either the mechanism had rusted shut, or we had somehow failed to activate it, which seemed a welcome twist of fate. However, it seemed as if misfortune accompanied good fortune as readily as itself, as our troubles seemed to be far from over. The corridors above were crawling with ghouls.

At first, we were able to avoid the corpse-eaters even though they blocked our original exit route. We tried a couple of staircases and uncertain corridors, but each seemed to be a dead end. Desperate, we settled on the other route to the sewers that had previously been used as the docking place for the feeding raft, and miraculously the ghouls were not present. However, once we begun to scale the actual sewer corridors, we noticed that the place was crawling with bandits from the sewerworkers’ guild. Dismayed by the discovery, we weighted our bets and chose to face the ghouls, as they were both unorganized and fearful of light. If we killed a few, the others would probably flee, and such a route would be much less risky than facing two dozen men with crossbows.

How wrong we were. Immediately after facing the scouts in the wine cellar entrance, we knew that these ghouls would not be just some rabble. They fought ferociously, with great skill and without fear. We couldn’t hold our own against their superior numbers, as they forced us to retreat back downstairs, and soon thereafter, into the far rooms of the cellar. We managed to block the doorway with some debris and hold a defensive line in a narrow entrance, but the ghouls were relentless and completely oblivious to their losses – we must have killed more than a dozen before they finally retreated. The reason for their restraint soon became apparent, as an old ghoul clad in tattered silken robes approached with an imposing guard of hulkish ghouls clad in ophirian gold-plated ceremonial armor. Deep down, I was certain that this would be the end of us, and considered a prayer to Mitra, that my parents used to worship.

We endured the stalemate for a while, as the ghouls seemed content to smirk and howl at their cornered and wounded pray. The sorcerer seemed reluctant to sacrifice any more of his kind, and eventually, to the revel of its subjects, it spoke the first words of great necromancy. I recognized the spell that beckoned the bodies of the recently dead, and instantly knew what to do. Placing a bolt on my crossbow, I took quick aim and pulled the trigger. The bolt hit the ghoul in the shoulder, causing it to lose control of its conjuration. The revitalizing energies of the words turned against their speaker, and the sorcerer and its nearest guards were putrefied and turned to ash in an instant. We were hit by a black shockwave that tried to desecrate our bodies and snuff away our breath, but further from the focus of the blast, we survived. The ghouls, seeming to lose heart, turned tail and fled.

It was a bitter victory. Our skin was black where the shockwave had swept over it. My hair was falling off in tatters and Dionysos’s fingernails were brown and rotting. Nothing but the surface mattered now. We ran and leaped through the corridors in the familiar route, wishful of rest and care. Yet there seemed to be no respite for us, as in the sewers, we were ambushed by the men of Kostokos. We repelled the first scouts and staggered back into the sewers, but hope was scarce.

Kostokos had accompanied the men himself and demanded everything we had in exchange of our lives. Granted, we were wounded and tired, completely without a chance of victory. The sewer king outnumbered us greatly, but Basil’s bitter resolve saved the day a bit. Not willing to give up his newfound riches, he screamed that if the sewer whore wanted everything, he would get nothing. We would rather throw everything in the sewage cleft or the ghouls than give up now. So sincere was the bargain, that to this day I do not doubt his resolve, and neither did Kostokos. He settled for the gold plaques Dionysos and Basil had found in the other tombs. To my utter surprise, the king was a man worth his word, as after given the plaques, we were allowed to leave in peace.

Rarely have I felt that the bed of an inn would be as welcome, and as rarely have I felt my life to be as cheap. Countless times in the last days could I have lost it, but somehow I still had it. Such happiness could not be bought with money, but perhaps my newfound wealth could buy what I truly wanted. I would be happier still when the blackness would peel off to reveal pale and healthy skin, and in a couple of days, I could brush my head to find fresh stubble.

More trouble would follow us, eventually. Especially the evil of the witch-kings would reach much further than we expected. I wouldn’t know of it until later, though, and for the first time in a long while, it felt as if everything was locking into place. I was content.

From the Chronicles of Lord Dionysos Thaurian

I was bitterly disappointed that whatever was guarding that accursed tomb would manage to frustrate me so, even distorting the dreams brought to me by the Blossoms of the Black Lotus. In retrospect, I should have spent more time researching what Amenkhun had used to subdue the demons bound to the site. And I shall not rest until I have feasted on the soul of Sergio Kostokos. Oh yes, Messentia has not seen the last of me.

Session XXVI: The City Below
Sailor's tears and scholarly discussions among vomit

Silent shadows skulked on the roof of the house rented by “Lord Bhaal” and his entourage. The guards and servants downstairs were fast asleep. The decision of the killers to strike through the windows saved their lives, or at least prolonged it for a few minutes. Steel glinted in the moonlight as blades were covered with poison. Silent nods were exchanged and the attackers slipped through the flimsy window covers with murder on their minds. They made their way through the main hallway of the second floor and divided into pairs. Motivated by greed and bloodthirst, the cutthroats crashed through doors into the silent bedrooms of their prey.

Alcemides was awoken by the racket and was on his feet just in time to see two assassins burst through the door. Tyrus, who shared the room with the half-pict, had barely woken up by the time one attacker died with a shortsword in his heart. Meanwhile Dionysos and Luba were struggling with another pair of killers, who grievously wounded the Acheronian-blooded sorcerer. Blinded by a stinging dust thrown in his eyes, his only chance to prevail was to use the chamber pot to wash out the alchemical weapon. Only in the room of Basil there seemed to be no struggle, only two silent thuds. A moment later, the alchemist stepped out, brandishing a sceptre-like staff inscribed with black spiders. Their momentum and the advantage of surprise lost, the attackers were quickly brought down. Luba saved the life of one assassin with timely first aid, while the others were left to die. The heroes decided to stay up for the rest of the night and move immediately for another place to stay come dawn. The corpses would be left in the house – it had been rented under a false name in any case.

The morning came without further incidents. The Nemedians and the Zamoran entourage slipped away, carrying an unconscious prisoner with them and acquired another house in a less respectable part of the great city. After they had settled down, Dionysos proceeded to interrogate the prisoner. Eventually the hypnotic powers of the young sorcerer overpowered the will of the assassin and he fell to a dominated trance. The assassin turned out to be just a small-time crook from the harbor districts: A thug for hire, who had been paid to murder merchants. He knew nothing of the cult, but could provide a name. Publio, a fence and a dealer in poisons and drugs, had hired the cutthroats to attack the house. The thug knew not where Publio lived, but told of a seaside tavern and brothel he frequented. Apparently the fence used the place as his office, meeting clients and minions inside. He was on good terms with pirates of the Barachan Isles and always kept half a dozen corsairs around as bodyguards. Having combed the thug’s brains for every ounce of information, Dionysos sacrificed him for sorcerous power, enjoying the thrill of cold-blooded murder with a thin smile on his pale lips.

The men decided to send Luba to gather information on the streets, while they sat down to consider what to do. Finally they decided to go after the fence, capture him and then extract any information he might have. Alcemides mumbled grimly about pirates and how they were his only equals in the art of sudden death, but the others paid little attention. In the evening Luba returned with little news. The city guard and the guilds were not looking for them for now, so whoever had sent the assassins also wanted the presence of the Nemedians to remain a secret. Dionysos suspected the attack was retaliation for the events in the sewers, but only finding Publio and forcing him to talk would confirm it.

As night fell on Messentia, the men disguised themselves in rags and made their way to the shady parts of the great harbor. Drunk pirates brawled on the streets amongst prostitutes and dealers of lotus wine. The few guards were more interested in harassing the street girls for discounts than maintaining order. Even before they reached the tavern, Alcemides got bored and attacked a street dealer peddling lotus and opium. He threw the man in the murky waters of the harbor and confisticated a satchel of drugs. The others didn’t even bother to ask him why, as the act of random violence seemed to improve the half-picts mood considerably.

Finally the men made their way in to the tavern/brothel called the Purring Mermaid. It was a rowdy, dirty place where sailors and soldiers came to look for cheap trollops and cheaper wine. Publio had a room in the back, separated from the common room by a thick curtain. After waiting for the previous client, a dark-haired man with a huge beard and the bearing of a pirate, to leave, Dionysos brazenly entered the booth. He intended to immediately subjugate the fence with his hypnotic gaze, after getting up close under the pretense of using his services. Yet as Publio saw the young sorcerer, he immediately jumped up and ordered his bodyguards to attack. Three brawny pirates assaulted Dionysos with cutlasses, forcing him out of the room.

The other heroes charged to aid the nobleman and more pirates joined the fray. As blows were exchanged, drunk tempers flared all over and the tavern was soon engulfed in chaotic bloodshed. Someone set the building aflame and the heroes barely managed to fight their way out before general panic turned the fight into a stampade. Alcemides sneaked back inside through a window and found that the fence had fled through the back door. Before leaving the burning building, he picked up the cup of wine the man has used, bringing it to Dionysos for sorcerous uses. Then the half-pict faded into the night, declaring that he would go “milk the tears of sailors”.

The others made their way back to their base and treated their wounds. Dionysos used the cup of wine and the saliva within to locate the fence through sorcery. He saw the man aboard a ship about to set sail despite it being a night. It seemed the fence was so terrified by the men he was going to flee the city. Seeing little else they could do, Tyrus used the cup to lay down a barrage of curses upon the man. At least he would be plagued by ill fortune for a year and a day. Alcemides returned after dawn, beaten black and blue, but with a happy grin on his mauled face. During the day, Dionysos cast divinations upon the fence again, becoming certain he was headed towards Kordova onboard a pirate ship.

Once again, the men were at a loss at what to do. The librarian was now too far away to pursue and the fence was beyond their reach as well. Alcemides suggested that they cut their losses and leave Messantia with the next ship, but the others wanted some tangible benefit before leaving. Finally Basil convinced the others to make another trip underneath the city. He suggested that the huge golden mark on the roof of the ritual chamber could be broken up and looted. They could also explore the stairways and tunnels they had previously seen. Promises of pure gold quickly convinced Dionysos and Tyrus. Alcemides and Ditrius tagged along with less enthuism.

Despite the death of the sewer mage, the sewers were still curiously empty. The heroes had no trouble reaching the chambers underneath the sewers. The undead miners were still hard at work, suggesting some other force than the dead leper had created them. Alcemides prooceded to cut them in to ribbons and the risen dead did naught to resist. Meanwhile the others tried pickaxe, sledgehammer, acid and brute force on the golden symbol in the ritual chamber. No amount of force or skill would even dent the stone. Frustrated, Dionysos finally proclaimed the symbol to be obviously somehow an enchanted tool in itself. Breaking it would require sorcery and the destruction would undoubtedly strain the walls between realities. It would be easier for them to scour the tunnels and seek something else to loot. Ditrius and Basil both seemed very pleased with the proclamation.

Moving through the old tunnels, the heroes found more obscure, blasphemous incriptions on the walls and eventually a set of wide stairs leaving somewhere deeper underground. A strong stench of carrion assaulted their noses. Alcimedes sneaked ahead and when descending the stairs, noticed many, many marks of clawed feet upon the stone. He could hear distant tittering, growling sounds echoing from somewhere afar. Alarmed by the report of the half-pict, the men decided to turn around and search other tunnels. Dionysos giggled with a mad gleam in his eyes about the hungry ones chewing the bones of the very world in hidden tunnels.

Finally the plunderers found a hidden stairway leading deeper in to the catacombs. Climbing down, they found a hole in the stairwell, leading in to a natural cave next to the stairs. Curious as ever, Alcemides went in to investigate and came back to tell the whole cave was filled with human bones. Dionysos and Tyrus waded around in the bones, confirming they were human in origin. All had toothmarks on them and most were broken and the marrow within missing. Stumbling among the bones, Tyrus kicked something hard. Among the bones was a gilded helmet with a high horse hair crest. Basil recognized the helmet as one used by the Royal Guard of Ophir several centuries ago.

Underneath the stairs, the men were assaulted by a stench so terrible it made them gag and puke in helpless revulsion. They had found the huge cesspool they had observed from above. Peering up, they could see the huge god-figure above, leaning dangerously towards the chasm. Peering down, they saw a ledge underneath opening into a large hall. So great was their revulsion that the men had to flee the stench. Still determined to find something valuable, Dionysos suggested to soak straps of cloth in perfume and cover their faces with it. Thus prepared the men went back, again hit by the terrible stench, but now at least able to stay on their feet. Using a rope, they descended on the ledge below, hands shaking with the staggering assault of the stench. On the edge of the cesspool was a winch and a bucket, which seemed fresh and working, as if someone occasionally dipped in to the disgusting muck below and lifted up whole buckets of it. The hall seemed to be a dining room, with silverwares incribed with scenes of murder and cannibalism. All but Alcemides were deeply disturbed by the implications. The half-pict proceeded to merrily loot the silver, caring little for the strange stains on them.

Staggering in the stench, the men made their way through the hall to the corridor beyond. It ended soon in a place where the roof had collapsed. The eastern side of the corridor opened to a chamber with a pile of corpses covering the floor. In the roof was a hole from which the corpses had obviously been dropped. Some were clothed, some naked, all in advanced states of decay. On the western side was a curtain of stained silk. From behind it emanated a glow of candlelight and low muttering, occasionally broken with smatterings and clicks. While the others pondered their options, Basil pulled the curtain aside.

Behind the curtain was a large chamber illuminated by a few black candles. Everywhere it was covered with scrolls neatly laid in piles and pyramids. At the back of the room was a rack on which large pieces of leather were stretched to dry, perhaps to be used as vellum. A huge creature, at least seven feet tall, stood beside a stone pedestal. It was covered with a dark stained robe which left only large, clawed hands visible. The creature was constantly writing a scroll of some kind and although it acknowledged the presence of the men with a nod, it never ceased to write. With a gurgling, smattering voice, it invited them to step in and asked what brought them in the catacombs.

Somewhat surprised by the behavior of the creature, the men nevertheless engaged it with words instead of swords. The creature explained it was a scholar and a librarian interested with local history and tasked with guarding something underneath Messentia. Basil, Dionysos and Tyrus asked many questions and learned much about the catacombs around them from the being. It already knew the leper sorcerer had been killed and congratulated the men for the deed, warning them of the ghouls prowling in the tunnels. As the scholars portrayed interest in Tartarus, the creature told how to enter the sacrificial pit which would lead to the tombs of the witch-kings, though he warned the men of the dire forces guarding the death-slumber of the Acheronians. As the other men left the chambers, Basil stayed behind for a few moments and emerged cluthing an old scroll. Back on the ledge, the plunderers decided they had had enough.

The Nemedians made their way back towards the surface. When they reached the secret door hidden in the wall of the storm drain, the party was alerted by the sounds of men issuing nearby. The most silent and swiftest of the adventurers, Alcemides sneaked ahead to investigate. Rounding a corner, he witnessed members of the sewer worker’s guild, armed, unloading corpses and living prisoners off a shallow skiff, chaining the sullen wretches to the wall. One of the prisoners still living was a young female prostitute. Before the others became aware of what was happening, Alcemides charged the messentians. Unfortunately, the half-pict, his wits clouded by his bloodlust, stepped in a puddle of filth with a loud splash, and the three sewer workers turned in unision to face the savage, who froze in his tracks. Witnessing the spectacle of Alcemides, half-naked with his sword drawn, one of the men fired his arbalest, striking the Savage Dancer in the chest. Alcemides fell back, without uttering a sound, and lay still with the heavy bolt portruding from his sternum. The sewer workers were still standing still, shocked, as the others rounded the corner, and seeing their comrade laid low, charged without asking questions. The workers in the skiff met terrible deaths as they drowned in sewage, pushed off their flimsy skiff, though one worker managed to flee, ducking bolts, as the Nemedians were slowed by their armour. As the adventurers checked to see if their fallen comrade had finally failed to cheat death, they were amazed to discover a faint pulse. The bolt had missed his heart and arteries by a hair, and had merely disturbed some nerve that had knocked Alcemides senseless. The men freed the girl chained to the wall, though she could say nothing on why she was bought here for her trivial offense. Limping back to the surface, the men realised that when they would next head below the city, the sewer guild would undoubtedly double their efforts at security, dictating even greater caution and secrecy. They returned to the rented house and spent the rest of the day bathing, trying to scrub off the terrible stench. Yet now they had a new goal – the tomb of the Acheronian witch-kings.

From the Memoirs of Tyrus the First

One of the days we spent at the inn, I inquired Luba about the military presence in the city and the actual status of the warrant on our heads. From what she had gathered, the search was no longer very active and I would probably be safe on the streets with a modest disguise.

Encouraged by this, I took it upon myself to visit good old Niccolo. As a man of my word and as repayement for the information I had bought, I told him everything I had learned about Nefertari. The man seemed visibly amused. By the tone of his questions, he seemed much more interested in the vampiress than I had initially assumed. Even though our debt was now settled, Niccolo even rewarded me with a nominal sum of silver. Perhaps out of principle.

The information dealer was also interested in everything I could tell about Pteion, but not enough to offer a reasonable prize, so we let the matter be. When I was leaving, he stopped me one last time to hand me a stone tablet decorated by his family signet with a request to break the tablet when I would finally meet Nefertari. I accepted, for the man had been nothing but fair, and I was certain that our paths with the vampiress would yet cross.

I remember thinking about the possible effects of the tablets, and believed that there existed a sort of feud between Niccolo and the hag. From what I could gather, perhaps the tablet would unleash a curse, or perhaps it was some kind of a tracking spell. If either of these was true, I could only deduct that Niccolo did not expect us to survive an encounter with Nefertari. I would later prove him wrong, but not in the sense that I then assumed.

Session XXV: Underneath the City of Coin
The catacombs underneath Messantia hide both danger and opportunity

After weeks of exhausting riding, the travelers reached Messantia, the City of Coin. The rest of the journey through Shem had been uneventful. The Nemedians had become acquinted with the entourage following Dionysos. Most of them still called him Bhaal, a mysterious and powerful sorcerer. Basil, the Zamoran alchemist, turned out to be very interested in ancient history. He spent much of the journey interrogating the others about Pteion and other locations of interest.

The Nemedians entered Messantia disguised with great care. They were wanted men in the city, framed by the cult of the Golden Lord as murderers and robbers. Worse yet, the city was one of the main bases of the cult. Being identified would mean immediate retaliation, both by the city guard and cult assassins. The Zamoran entourage proved out to be a great boon. Luba and Basil were not known in Messantia and could handle all business. They rented a house for “Lord Bhaal” and the entourage, with a plan to spend a few days in Messentia. While there, the Nemedians would sell the rest of their loot from Pteion. They planned to sail home along the river Tybor. Ditrius and his group found quarters in the local Mitraneum. Selcides departed soon after, eager to see an old friend.

A few days passed. The Nemedians stayed indoors, resting from the journey, while Luba sold most of their loot. Alcemides and Tyrus slipped out once, disguised from head to toe, for some shady business. Then, one early morning, Ditrius and Selcides returned to their companions. The friend Selcides had looked forward to meeting had disappeared. Ditrius suspected that he had been kidnapped. Tranicos was the librarian of the main Mitraneum and had lately been acting strangely. He had disappeared several times before and returned with no memory of where he had been. Ditrius thought eldtrich forces were afoot and asked the others to help him. They reluctantly agreed.

The group entered the local Mitraneum, hoping to find clues about the disappearance. Castel, the assistant librarian did his best to assist the men in their search. He provided them with access to the personal quarters of Tranicos. Dionysos secretly pilfered a magical link from the beddings, hoping to locate the man through sorcery. Meanwhile the others scoured the rooms for clues. Alcemides noticed a hidden space behind a heavy desk. In it were several old scrolls, a curious statue and a diary. The statue stood up to the knee of a grown man. It was made of green metal and portrayed a hideous creature with features both human and bestial. Dionysos mentioned in passing that it was a god or goddess of ancient Acheron. The scrolls showed a map through the sewers underneath the city – and the old tunnels beneath. Apparently the librarian had traced a route to the fabled Tartarus, an Acheronian city Messantia was built upon. The diary was filled with the scribblings of a madman, describing nightmares and hallucinations, and revealing memory lapses of ever increasing length.

Dionysos voiced suspicions that Tranicos had been taken by the cult of the Golden Lord. While he could not claim certainty, madness seemed to follow the cult everywhere. He set his third eye upon hairs of the priest and was sure he was still alive, albeit wounded, somewhere underneath the city. After a brief discussion, the heroes agreed they would seek answers in the sewers.

The Nemedians, Sergei, Basil and Luba followed the map to the nearest sewer entrance. Dionysos hypnotized the sewer workers and made them provide the heroes with appropriate gear. One whiff of the terrible stench was enough to convince Luba it was better for her to stay behind. Thus only the six men entered, covering their faces with scented cloth. Even thus prepared, they were struck nearly delirious by the nauseating fumes on their way down. Its force felt like a physical blow to the head, numbing the senses. The sewers seemed oddly empty of workers. Silently, the men made their way ahead in the shadowy corridors with just an occasional cough or gag. After a tiresome walk, the men finally located a secret door in a sewer wall. Behind it descended steep, slimy stairs into ominous darkness.

The stairs finally ended in to a corridor with a very low ceiling. Basil and Dionysos had trouble moving due to their tall build. Suddenly the corridor opened in a hall with several doors. Flickering candlelight illuminated one of the doorways. Beyond it was a room filled with rotting barrels. Alcemides found another secret door, opening into another steep stairway. As the men descended, the walls surrounding them turned to red Acheronian stone. Dionysos sensed ahead with his third eye and felt the priest closer. They were on the right track.

The stairs lead into a circular chamber with three doorways. Two of them had been sealed, but the third one was broken open. The walls were inscribed with people and creatures cowering at the feet of Acheronian witch-kings. The air was stale, but still pervaded with the stench of decay. Wandering through the deserted corridors, the men heard distant sounds of metal hitting stone. Ditrius suggested that it meant a mining operation was nearby, strange as it was in the surroundings. The first hall the group entered was filled with obscene inscriptions. The walls showed humans, animals and demonic creatures copulating. Women then gave birth to terrible abominations, which were worshipped by human figures. Above the calamity stood an imposing witch-king. Alcoves within the walls were filled with statues of abominations, similiar to the one in the quarters of the missing librarian. One of the alcoves was empty.

At the far end of the hall, the floor had collapsed. Somewhere underneath loomed a huge cesspool, where a broken sewer pipe flowed in a waterfall of disgusting slime. Poised over the edge of the pit was a huge statue of black basalt. It was an image of a terrifying female thing with scores of horns, mammaries, tentacles and limbs. Smaller statues of horned children and tree-like things were placed in reverie at its feet. The mere sight of the obscene goddess filled the men with dread. Dionysos muttered that his aunt back in Nemedia talked of a similar divinity and advised the group to leave the hall.

The men quickly retreated back to the corridors, now following the sounds of labor instead. They entered a series of corridors illuminated by fresh torches. On the way towards the noise, Alcemides spotted an interesting chamber. It was furnished as a temple, with a small round pit in the middle. On the floor in the pit was inscribed the sign of the Golden Lord, in pure gold. The gold in the sign was worth a fortune and on an altar nearby was a huge gong. Deciphering the incriptions on the walls, the scholars came to a disturbing conclusion. Apparently even the Acheronians had worshipped the Golden Lord in some capacity. Written on the altar stone were instructions for summoning “enlightenment”. A simple ritual had to be performed, the gong struck thrice and a supplicant standing in the small pit would find wisdom from the stars. Basil was disturbingly interested in the possibility, but Ditrius convinced the others to leave the chamber alone. They could return later to retrieve the gold. Alcemides sabotaged the gong briefly, in case someone would use it to summon something while they passed on.

Heading along, the intrepid adventurers found another set of stairs, though the corridor continued on. The noise came from the stairs. Alcemides sneaked ahead to have a look. The stairs ended suddenly in a dark room filled with the living dead. A dozen corpses were chiseling pieces of the red stone from the walls, chipping them into blocks and stuffing the blocks into wooden shipping crates. The undead did not react to the presence of the living men, even when they were shoved around. The corpses simply carried on in their duties. Most were relatively fresh and dressed in dirty rags. The heroes decided to leave the corpses alone for now – the noise of their work would cover the sounds of their approach from their master. Now sneaking, the six men climbed the stairs back up and carried on along the corridor. They entered a hall filled with high pillars incribed with demonic forces. At the far reaches of the huge room stood a silent figure wrapped in tatters of yellow silk.

The man approached the intruders with a gleeful cackle, advising them to step forth in Nemedian. With a sardonic bow, he introduced himself as a priest of the Golden Lord. From among the yellow tatters, the heroes could see flesh terribly ruined by leprosy. As Alcemides promptly charged ahead with a sword in hand, not interested in parley, the cultist reacted with sorcery. With a flick of a wrist and a strange, coarse scream, he conjured a strange phantom in midst of the men. It was the Golden Sign, but as a floating, wavering apparition, which danced in the air. Its mere sight paralyzed many of the men, forcing them to stare at it in rapt silence. Basil resisted the sign and launched two globes of demon-fire at the sorcerer, but they both exploded against the tall pillars. Luaghing with insane glee, the cultist let forth a wailing, undulating shout, which caused the flesh of the men to bubble and blister, as if it wanted to dance with the sound. Paralyzed by the sign and mauled by the strange, blubbering song, the heroes seemed to have to have reached the end of their journey. Alcemides saved the day by shaking himself free of the paralysis. His savage attack ceased the wavering song and forced the sorcerer to retreat to an inner chamber. Alcemides pursued and ran him through with his blade.

Several of the heroes had been badly hurt by the sorcerous maladies of the dead priest. Sergei had fallen on the floor and appeared comatose, his soul wracked by the power of the Golden Lord. Investigating the chambers revealed a box full of letters, some alchemical ingredients and a little gold. Upon the person of the priest Alcemides found a signet ring belonging to a local merchant house. The dead priest was obviously well connected. Behind one pillar Dionysos finally found Tranicos. The librarian was naked, tied up, gagged and unconscious, but physically unharmed. Upon his back was branded the symbol of Skelos, but the mark was obviously at least several months old.

The men left the sewers, dragging the unconscious assassin and librarian with them. They encountered no obstales on their way back to the rented house. Ditrius summoned Selcides, who tended to the unconscious priest. Finally he woke up and was able to tell a short story. The librarian had simply woken up in the sewers, tied up by the leper sorcerer. He had no recollection of other events. The leper had interrogated him on his interest in the ruins below, then knocked him unconscious with alchemy. Ditrius and Selcides escorted Tranicos back to the Mitraneum and left the others tend their wounds.

Next morning Ditrius was back, knocking furiously on the door. As servants of “Lord Bhaal” escorted him inside, the Nemedian produced a burst of profuse oaths. The librarian had gone missing again, this time obviously kidnapped. Castel, the priest who had helped to find him, was missing as well. Ditrius asked Dionysos to seek them out with his sorcery. Enjoying the chance for attention, the Acheronian-blooded set about to conjure visions. Surprisingly, he could bring forth naught but dark mist and chanting in a guttural, primitive voice. Frustrated by the obstacle, Dionysos used the hair of the librarian to gauge his state of mind and body. He declared the man was not a prisoner, but traveling rapidly upstream of his own volition. The Nemedians considered riding after the river ship, but abandoned the idea after a short discussion. Catching up with the ship would be very difficult and they had barely recovered from the fight in the sewers. They would seek Tranicos on their way upriver, later on. Alcemides suspected the librarian had been swallowed by a snake-man, who had stolen his skin. The others were, for the most part, amused by the notion.

The rest of the day was spent in idle slumber, repairing damaged equipment and tending wounds. The letters retrieved from the leper sorcerer seemed to be describe a large scale shipping operation. The blocks of Acheronian stone from the sewers were packed aboard ships in Messantia, whence they traveled to Zingara, Ophir and Zamora. Three men had corresponded with the leper in arranging the shipments – a Korzetta of Zingara, Z. from Ophir and Zevras from Zamora. Obviously the cult had a longer reach than the Nemedians had dared to suspect before. Among the letters was a crude map of the known world. Over it had been drawn a giant V with red ink. It covered the western coast from Zingara to Messantia, then reached up till Shadizar in the northeast. Seeing the symbol filled the men with strange dread, but meant nothing at the moment. As the night fell, their dreams were invaded by the glow of a baleful star, alone in the crimson sky. Meanwhile stealthy feet padded on the roof of the house and steel glinted in the moonlight.

From Tyrus

After reaching Messentia, I and Alcemides spent a night confirming what the Child of Nergal had told us about the red-handed assassins. As told in a letter we had received after the attack, one of the dock warehouses concealed a secret entrance to a simple negotiation chamber. An envoy of the assassins greeted us there, telling us much of what we already knew. In addition, we each were given the possibility of learning about one other negotiation place. I chose Belverus, and Alcemides chose Kordova. With cities so far apart, we would at least have a reasonable distance to any one of them, no matter where we would travel. However, Belverus was the only meeting place which I assumed would ever get used.

Session XXIV: Reunion
Confusion and paranoia as Dionysos rejoins the Nemedian wanderers, along with a strange retinue

Dionysos was woken by the orange glow of the late morning sun reflecting off plain white walls, filtered through a curtain of some fine fabric. The air was warm and dry, and the sounds of traffic and tongues unknown to him carried into the chambers he lay in through an open window. There was also the sound of steady breathing, of others still slumbering, in his chambers. He lay on a luxurious bed, his naked, youthful body wrapped in a thin sheet of silk. His last recollection was of descent into the depths of the cursed city of Pteion, followed by darkness and vague, uneasy feelings of confusion, helplessness and frustration. The young noble chanced a glance around himself, and found his bedmate to be a woman, older than himself but still attractive, very tall and thin yet voluptuous, with an unusual complexion he could not quite place. In an adjacent corner, sleeping on pillows, were three servant-girls of mixed breeding, their musical instruments close by. Half-empty amphorae of wine and bowls of fruit lay scattered about in the opulently furnished, yet oddly plain and simple, room. Gingerly, Dionysos eased himself out of bed of obviously foreign design, and tiptoed as silently as he could over to a small wash-basin in the opposite corner. Observeing his reflection in the water, he noted that his face still bore make-up in the Stygian fashion. As he splashed water over his face and drew his hands through his hair he felt something odd. Looking down at his hands, he noted that a single joint was missing rom the least digit of his left hand. Dumbfounded, Dionysos stared at this desecration of his body. The wound was no longer painful, indeed looking as if it had been healing for weeks. “Fhtagn” , he silently muttered. As if in reply, a husky voice from behind him, soft and pleasant, yet with a hard and eerily sinister edge to it, inquired, in the toungue of his father’s people, “Lord Bhaal? Is something not to your satisfaction, my husband?”.

Bewildered, but determined to gather his wits, Dionysos looked around the apartment, which seemed like a suite in some expensive inn. He entered another chamber, apparently converted into a makeshift alchemical laboratory, the strange occupants of which were already awake. “Dare not disturb the works of Basil, you lame fool!”, exclaimed one to the other, who merely lowered his gaze meekly in response to the abuse. The more assertive alchemist was, like the strange woman claiming to be the wife of Dionysos, improbably tall and thin, as if stretched on the rack, with pale skin and and uncanny features. The other was a hunchback, with Zamoran features, his face pockmarked with burns. All of the strangers Dionysos had seen in this place wore items common to the spider-worshippers of Zamora. Yet, from what he had seen and heard, he was certain that he was not now in that shadowy land. “I see that Lord Bhaal has decided to grace us with his presence”, said the tall alchemist. “Shall we be making our leave of this place soon, then? Are we to proceed as planned?” Deciding it best to play along until his head cleared, Dionysos responded, as authoritatively as possible, “Yes, as soon everyone is prepared. Refresh my memory, where were we headed next?” Seemingly without hesitation, the weird figure replied, “Why, to Stygia, of course. To purchase some rare chalks of great potency.” Nodding, Dionysos exited the room to find something to eat, deciding that it was best to listen to the Zamorans before making any further inquiries. Behind him, he heard a faint chuckle, pregnant with malign ambition, “Excellent…”

Telling his servants he fancied a walk, Dionysos headed outside, into the heat of a bustling Shemite city. Weighing in his mind the potential benefits of either running away or trying to pass himself off as whoever his new followers thought he was, at least until his memory returned. Turning a corner, he was suddenly faced with a wrathful Tyrus and Alcemides, their weapons drawn. Of Noam the Archer there was no sign. “Give me one reason not to skewer you on the spot, perfidious worm of Acheron!”, Tyrus hissed. Alcemides merely looked on with a passive expression of bemusement, though Dionysos knew better than to underestimate the deadliness of the half-savage. Thus cornered, Dionysos decided that to tell the truth was the wisest course of action. At first his former companions were intensly skeptical of his professed ignorance of what had transpired after the band entered Pteion, but the young witch pleaded them to follow him to his residence, where his story would be confirmed by the Zamorans present. In fact, he suggested that Tyrus might better be able to extract information of what had happened to Dionysos from the Zamorans, without unduly alarming the spider-cultists, who apparently mistook the noble half-Acheronian for someone else.

Tyrus and Alcemides were introduced to the Zamorans as former acquaintancies, to be trusted and treated as welcome guests. After a while of politely questioning Luba and Basil, Tyrus had formed a rough picture of what had happened to Dionysos in the past months: He had apparently traveled from Pteion to Yezud, in Zamora, impossibly fast, introducing himself simply as “Lord Bhaal”. He had impressed the priests of Zath, and traded with them for the hand of Luba in marriage and the serveces of his brother, who, it seems, were not wholly of this Earth, but formed of a union between humans and the denizens of the Outer Dark. From Zamora he had travelled back south again, through Koth, where he had met the famed sorcerer Pelias. Beyond that the Zathians knew little, but Dionysos was determined to find out what had happened, through Lotus visions and Dreams of Prophecy, should all else fail.

Eventually, Tyrus was, though still cautious, satisfied with Dionysos promising to do what he could to bring back memories of what had happened in the past three months, and that he was not likely to blame for the misfortunes that had fallen on the band of Nemedians, or the fate of Noam. Dionysos was introduced to Selcides and his guardian, Ditrius. Well into the afternoon, the small caravan took leave of Asgalun, leaving on the road to Messentia, not too far from western Shem. The new followers of Dionysos included his new wife, Luba, a former sacred dancing girl of the spider-god Zath and her brother Basil, an alchemist formerly serving the cult. Additionally, his retainers included a couple of guardsmen, a Zamoran assassin, an alchemist and a scribe, musicians and household servants. Dionysos found himself riding a fine Balkhanan stallion, a warhorse of inestimable value, though he seemed to have lost the trading licence to Khemi granted by Thothmekri as reward for his services to the House of the Black Ring.

Musings of Alcemides

I was not disheartened by the unexpected disappearance of Dionysos in the least and thus felt no need to utter a rebuke for leaving us in Pteion. He seems to have done well for himself in his absence.

Session XXIII: The Red Hands of Yajur
..and the most expensive arrow ever

The thirty days of preparation were about to come to an end. Nervous and – in the case of Alcemides – excited, the Nemedians were preparing to face the oriental assassins. They double-checked their weapons every day and night, slept with a sword in hand and inspected every drink with the fear of poison in their mind. Noam and Tyrus had bought doses of purple lotus, hoping the expensive toxic might give them an edge. Ditrius and the Hyperboreans followed the men wherever they went, guarding their backs.

Tired of waiting, the Nemedians sought ways to find the assassins and take the battle to them. Yet all tries to locate the killers proved futile. No amount of streetwise, no amount of gold and bribery achieved anything but false leads. Finally Noam had a strange idea. He announced he would spend a day doing nothing but smoking black lotus. Surely the lotus dreams would bring him insight in to the nature of their enemies, for he would be guided by his powers as the Scorpion King. The others thought Noam had finally went completely insane, but could do little but give him his portion of the lotus.

After spending an entire day in the caress of the lotus, Noam approached the others again, red-eyed and giggling. He gave a detailed account of three assasins he had seen in drug-induced visions, one for each. An assassin assigned after him was incredibly fast and impossible to fool by stealth or guile, striking swiftly with cutting blades. Tyrus was targeted by a woman, who flew through the skies like a lightning bolt striking from a clear sky. Alcemides was threatened by a bear-like shadow, a hulking brute, who would rip his limbs apart and break his spine like a twig. Although the others did not believe Noam completely, he seemed convinced of the accuracy of his vision.

The days dragged on. Alcemides continued with his blunt attempts to seduce the Hyperborean sorceress, but she only ignored him with the determination of an iceberg. After a week of courting, she asked Noam and Tyrus to accompany her to “special entertainment”, as if to spite the half-pict. The two men followed her, but Tyrus quickly returned with a look of disgust on his face. Noam came back with the cold woman, much later and with a strange gleam in his eyes. Finally exactly 30 days had passed from the challenge of the Red Hands. The Nemedians fortified their room in the inn and stayed inside first for a day, then two. Ditrius and the Witchmen kept guard in shifts. Yet the assassins did not come. After staying indoors for several days, the heroes decided they had enough. The attackers were obviously trying to break their spirits. The heroes decided to set an ambush instead.

Tyrus went for a stroll in the city, while Noam and Alcemides followed covertly. Soon enough Tyrus noticed he was followed by a shadowy figure. He took a turn for an alley, which was suddenly blocked by a very large man. Behind him appeared a Shemite woman in long, flowing robes. They had succesfully lured out two of the assassins. The brute stayed in place, while the woman charged Tyrus in a whirling fury of striking feet and hands. She was quick as a cobra and the Nemedian couldn’t even scratch her with his sword.

As Alcemides and Noam appeared on the scene, the brute turned and fled into the busy streets. The nimble woman followed, but with three Nemedians on her tail. She ran swiftly, but not swiftly enough for Alcemides and Noam. They drove her into a cul-de-sac, an inner wall of a garden blocking the route. Yet the woman did not stop, but ran up to the wall at top speed. Realising she was trying to scale the wall, Noam drew an arrow poisoned with the precious purple lotus. Just as he was about to let loose the shaft, a buzzing insect flew straight in to his eye, jerking his aim so the expensive arrow went flying high on to the sky. The assassin cleared the wall in one amazing leap and the Nemedians gave up the chase. Defeated for now, they returned to their inn.

The day passed uneventfully as the men pondered their next move. They finally decided to stay in the inn for now. They went to sleep with one of the Witchmen standing guard at their door. Little did they know this was the night the assassins would strike. At midnight, on Noam’s guard shift, a faint scratching sound from the closed window alerted him. The archer barely had time to shout a warning to his sleeping comrades, when the windows burst open. Inside fell a glass globe, exploding in a sputtering cloud of blinding smoke. Noam was unable to do little but cough, while three figures jumped in the room. Alcemides and Tyrus had luckily woken and grabbed their weapons, facing their would-be killers wearing naught but loincloths.

The familiar woman vaulted past the other men and landed next to Tyrus with a stunning kick on his jaw. The others had little time to help him while he was being beaten senseless, as the two others assassins had not been idle. Noam was assaulted by a strange small man with a face completely covered in dirty rags. He was armed with claw-like blades on each hand and attacked with blinding speed, flaying his target with sadistic fervor. The hulking brute grabbed Alcemides in a deathly embrace, twisting the half-pict’s spine to breaking point, with an ecstatic smile on his thin lips.

The attack was quick and it was over even quicker. Several deadly blows were dealt in an instant. Tyrus recovered from the onslaught of whirling feet and fists just in time to remember the lotus poison on his dagger. With a lucky thrust he managed to scratch the female assailant and she fell on the floor, instantly paralyzed. A second strike struck her heart. Meanwhile, the female Witchman burst through the door, her right hand appearing icy as morning mist in the far north. She struck the muscular wrestler in the back with her open palm and the huge man went down, dead before he hit the floor, with a frozen frostbite in the form of an open palm on his skin. Alcemides was left breathless on the floor, spine aching and only a moment away from death. Meanwhile, in the other corner of the room, swift fist-blades struck their final blows and Noam collapsed on the floor, his throat cut from ear to ear.

Quickly charging back into the fray, Alcemides struck the last attacked down, stabbing his lungs while he was fending off the Hyperborean woman. All three attackers were dead by the time Ditrius and the other Witchman charged in. Yet Noam had been struck down and there was nothing the others could do to revive him. All that was left was to arrange a burial and move on with heavy hearts.

From Tyrus

I remember how Alcemides lamented Noam’s poverty when we were splitting his possessions. Of course he was right, as except for the gold from Pteion that Noam had already spent on weapons and clothes, our fabled scorpion king was as poor as a beggar. Eventually we settled on a split that gave me Noam’s gold-buckled belt and the Ankh, while Alcemides took pretty much everything else – especially the golden trinklets that I felt uneasy with. The large turanian gold ring, along with all of Noam’s weapons, we left to the grave.

Perhaps I could have negotiated for a better split, as mere possession of the artifact was enough to stain my dreams with detailed histories of its crafting. Such visions were almost untolerable on the first night, fortunately fading to merely very unpleasant on the tenth. The Ankh promised might to anyone willing to submit to its power and embrace its philosophies, but after witnessing Noam’s spiral into madness, I wanted none of it. My main interest was in the monetary value of such might. The Ankh would surely be invaluable to the scholars of Belverus, and if I couldn’t bear the burden so far, no doubt also in Messentia. Patience and guile would multiply my profits, as always.

Session XXII: The City of Steel
..and compatriots encountered on the road
A story whispered by Ditrius Bartol

The Red Hands of Yajur… yes, I have heard of them before. Seen them too, back south, in Shem.

Selcides and I had been left in Eruk by the caravan from Stygia. With us was the mute Darfar and the girl Selcides had adopted in Stygia. They followed him like dogs. It was up to me to make all the decisions, as usual. Stygia was a strange and haunted land, filled the sorcerers, ruins and snakes, but at least you always knew where you stood there. You could count on the dark nature of the priests of Set and decadence of the nobility. Shem is different. There all words are covered with honey, even as the speaker plots to part a man from his coin or life. The men of Shem are all liars and the women…they are much worse.

It was thus a great joy to hear my favorite language of the world – Nemedian – in the inn we stayed for the night. I met Alcemides, Noam and Tyrus there for the first time. The two, at first, were a sight hard to miss, dressed as they were in gold and silk. Noam’s attire was especially outlandish, with a huge silk turban decorated with a golden scorpion with small rubies for eyes. His insane obsession with scorpions became clear during the following weeks – perhaps the desert heat had boiled his brains. I had seen it happen to men often enough.

Still, we – Selcides and I – thought them to be amiable enough. We found out they were just about to leave Eruk for Akbitana and then proceed west to Messantia. It was agreed we would travel together, for there was safety in numbers. Tyrus warned us that a powerful enemy had sent assassins after them and thus their company might not be very safe. I cared not about such trivial matter and Selcides agreed that Mitra would protect us. No barbarian heathen from the dark east could harm one protected by true faith.

The journey to the City of Steel was dusty and uneventful. Asshuri patrolled the caravan routes and no bandits troubled us. Our new companions were paranoid to the extreme. They kept eyeing every passer-by suspiciously and insisted on keeping double guard at night. Yet no assassin troubled us and if we were followed, our shadows were very stealthy and unnoticeable.

The City of Steel was just another Shemite city-state to me. Stout walls, hedonistic temples, shining ziggurats, exotic gardens and glittering bazaars – the details vary, but the noise, the filth, the strange smells and sights always remain the same. Merchants from far and wide had come there to bargain for the famous weapons. There was even a group of merchants from the mythical land of Khitai camped outside the city proper. Our new companions declared they would stay in the city for at least two weeks. For reason or another, they had decided to face the assassins in Akbitana instead of the open road. Alcemides used the time to order a customized sword from the master smith, spending a whole bag of gold as payment. I agreed that we had time to stay with them, for my own reasons.

The Khitan merchants interested the trio very much. They sought their aid against the assassins. Indeed, the merchants had a very rare poison – purple lotus, I was told – in their possession. However, they demanded outrageous sums of silver to part with it. Much to my amazement, Noam and Tyrus each bought a dose, for over a thousand silver each. For two hundred gold, they could have hired a company of asshuri to guard their backs, instead of oriental cantrips of questionable effect. I still thought them wise to trust their sword-arms rather than hired foreigners.

Thus their next decision appalled me somewhat. In the same inn with us stayed three strange Hyperboreans, two men and a woman. Two of them – a man and a woman – were cold and featureless creatures, the infamous Witchmen. The third spent his time completely drunk, but was still in command of the others. It turned out he was waiting for some special delivery to complete, something to take up north to the cold, dark realm. I don’t know who came up with the idea, but the trio ended up hiring the Hyperboreans as their bodyguards. I can see it was a good deal for their leader – he would have more money to drink without losing anything. Ever since then, the two cold human-shaped creatures followed us everywhere we went. Strangest still was how Alcemides seemed to quite fancy the cold, hostile woman.

Yet time passed and the assassins did not come. Tired of waiting for them, Alcemides, Noam and Tyrus finally ventured out on the streets again. It must have been what the Red Hands had been counting on all along.

Session XXI: Crossing the border
The first days in Shem and an encounter with an honest informant

From the Memoirs of Tyrus the First

Though we had barely survived Pteion and were ecstatic with the wealth we gathered there, the journey through the desert was not easy. We no longer had our camels and thus the only water we had was what we could carry. It was not easy making it last for the week’s worth of desert on foot.

Each day we slept under makeshift tents and each night we walked as far as we could. When I closed my eyes, the serpent-men from Alcemides’s testimony visited me in my dreams and demanded the return of something Nefertari stole. In return, they promised limitless wealth and services from the vaults of the city in the sands. I did not talk of the dreams at first, and when the distance to Pteion grew, they decreased in frequency and intensity. I don’t remember anymore whether I had any intention of heeding these visions, as the desert was much greater an adversary.

Many were the complaints of Alcemides and just as many were the encouragements of Noam. All the water had been spent and we were almost sure our days were numbered, before we saw the first signs of human life. Huddled around a small desert oasis was a nomad camp. The last steps were almost the hardest, for we feared that the oasis would prove a mirage. Fortunately, this wasn’t so and we reached it just as real as it had initially seemed. Not all was right with the scene, however, as the camp was abandoned. We found signs of struggle, but no bodies of men or animals were around, which was quite unnerving. Content with the luck we had had so far, we decided not to push the issue, and to this day I do not know what had happened to the camp. After filling our waterskins, we immediately headed to Erkulum, which we knew should be only a little more than two days away.

Erkulum was as quiet and morbid as always, so we did not stay for long – just enough to buy supplies and spend one night under the roof of an inn. The following morning we bought horses, for we didn’t plan on crossing any deserts in Shem, and no-one preferred the company of camels any longer.

Due to the stress and paranoia we felt about looting the city of the sands, I have little memories of the initial days after crossing the river north. Shem seemed less prosperous than Stygia, and the contrast was almost uncanny. I have to admit that the presence of filth and lepers on the streets and whores on the corners was shocking for me, as the few months in Stygia had accustomed me to the unnatural cleanliness and order of the southern kingdom.

Wanting some distance between ourselves and the desert horrors, we soon left northwest, for we dared not sell the gold and gems so close to the Stygian border. The days of the following week were spent briefly stopping at villages and smaller cities, where we slowly materialized our loot and bargained for the prize of raw gold. Little could be done, however, before we reached the city of Eruk, which was rumored to be a merchant’s paradise. Indeed, it had all the services and disservices of a large city, and we settled for a longer while, enjoying our life and newfound coin. Noam and Alcemides spent recklessly on clothes, jewelry and lavish decor on their weapons and armor, but I tried to preserve most of my wealth, for I would surely have an use for it in Nemedia. I eventually invested in weapons and fine wine, which I believed I could sell for profit at home, but was rather skeptical on whether I could transport all of it through the countless miles north.

Granted, the tranquil days of my recent life have been scarce, and so were these. Not a week had passed when three gifts had been left at our quarters in the inn. On each of our beds, lay a large yellow flower with a long stalk. No matter who we asked, we couldn’t find out who had left the gift and what it meant. Alcemides of course merely assumed that his manly reputation had preceded him and aroused the interest of some local girls. The detail didn’t bother me initially either, but no continuation to the mystery ever came. We finally livened up when Noam rushed to the inn and told that he had seen Dionysos on the busy streets, riding on a carriage in the company of Tawil At’Umr.

It was of course of great interest to us what the young pervert was up to, and was he perhaps following us. We set out to turn every stone to find the young noble, but no matter how much coin we spent and how many locals we questioned, no-one could or would not provide any insight to the whereabouts of either Dionysos or the wandering sage.

Overcome with these mysteries, we eventually turned to the temple of Bel, whom Alcemides had bargained with while liquidating most of our more precious gems and art objects. The priests of Bel proclaimed they had arranged a meeting for us with a third party who had something important to tell us. We were taken to an underground chamber, where thick steel bars separated us from another chamber. A priest intoned the place was sacred and no blood should be shed, then left the room. A booming voice greeted us from the other chamber.

Three figures, shrouded in shapeless robes, set a torrent of overflowing praises on us in Stygian. After flattering our manliness and bravery for a long while, they proclaimed we were favored by Yajur the Red-Handed, the god of stranglers. We had been chosen to become the next sacrifice, which was marked by the flowers. In 30 days time, the sacrifice would be commenced. Then the three figures left their side of the chamber, unmoved by the insults Alcemides hurled after them. As we hungered for more knowledge, the acolytes directed us to the temple of Nergal, which had influence in the city and surely also priests capable of scrying for us.

The priests of the death god likewise offered little help directly, but advised us to seek the guidance of a Child of Nergal, which we would meet in the desert just outside the city gates after sunset. The encounter was indeed an interesting one, as the child was no man and not of entirely ordinary wisdom. The information came with a prize and we bargained extensively, eventually agreeing on the seeds of the emerald lotus we had found in the Stygian swamps. To this day I rue myself for by poor judgment on the trade, for the Child would not settle for half the seeds, instead wanting all of them, no matter how many we had. I am certain that the it had no true need for all the seeds, but gained greater delight in seeing us part with them. Had I separated the seeds into two bags, giving the other would surely have sufficed.

Bad bargain or not, the Child told us many things. It had almost intimate knowledge of Nefertari and the exploits and nature of this mercenary-vampiress. We were to beware, as Nefertari was as selfish and cruel, as she was strong and cunning. The Child assured us that she would never ultimately work for anyone but herself, and the co-operation with the cult was but temporary. Having told further about the scene in Pteion and my dream-vision of the snake men, the Child was sure that Nefertari had betrayed the cult there. Whatever she had stolen was merely for her own use.

Of the masks, the Child told that they originated from the east. It believed that they were from as far as Khitai, and that the religion of the mast was self-sustaining and purely a product of the masks themselves. Whoever would put on the mask would become its slave, and the masks shared the power in the cult themselves. Of their eventual motives, it claimed to know nothing, and I can not rightly say whether it was lying. However, as far as I have been able to later confirm, the Child of Nergal was truthful in all of its accusations and histories, which never ceases to amaze me, considering its nature.

The Child told that the Red Hands of Yajur were an assassin cult from Vendhya. Whoever received the flowers would be attacked by the cult after thirty days had passed, as would be also our fate. It would best set our affairs in order, for it was extremely rare to survive the attack. However, such a thing had come to pass, and whoever survived, could themselves use the services of the cult.

I don’t remember anything other very significant, but naturally we discussed Shem and the cults there. We even asked about Nergal, but he was a simple god, and there was little to discuss. In the end we returned to the issue of the Red Hands, as it was of greatest importance. Unfortunately the Child could not offer a lot of wisdom on beating the assassins, but death and blood amused it greatly, leading it to chronicle about Xaltotun, the war we had lost and the Heart of Ahriman. Of course every wizard worth his eyes and words has heard of the artifact, but truthfully the Child knew much more than most. What I’ve told of the artifact earlier in these pages largely comes from its mouth. Strange thing was, that no matter how garrulous it were, the Child dared not speak about Thoth-Amon, and we departed soon after we asked about the famous wizard.

With heavy hearts and the doom of the strangler cult looming above us, we returned to the city and decided to leave Eruk behind us. I don’t recall our exact motive, but remember that we thought facing the assassins in the open wilderness would be better than fighting in the confines of a busy city. We were sure they were following our every move and in the open ground, we might spot them and strike first. Things would again turn against our expectations, but we wouldn’t know it until later.

Session XX: The Secrets of Pteion
Surely the city is called "the Damned" for no reason

The night was alive with clattering metal, as the skeletons of ancient spearmen marched upon the Nemedians. It had been their task to defend Pteion from intruders and now they had been roused from their graves to do so once more. The Nemedians helped the Darfar on the roof without questions – now it was just the living against the dead, other things mattered little. Half of the undead marched to the edge of the building, harassing the Nemedians with ancient javelins. The rest marched straight inside and to their horror, the men on the roof heard the death cries of their camels and sounds of breaking wood. All attempts by the skeletal warriors to climb on the roof were defeated with great difficulty. Despite their skill in arms, the dead of Pteion were very fragile after centuries of dry desert air and their equipment brittle to the touch. After an exhausting fight, the undead were laid low. All of the living had suffered wounds, but the fate of their supplies was a far more serious concern. All of their mounts were dead and the ancient warriors had broken all the carefully conserved water containers. There was only enough water left to last for a day at most in the scalding desert heat.

While they rested, the Nemedians finally turned their attention to the Darfar. In broken Stygian, the large man introduced himself as Dahab, a hunter and skull-breaker from the south. He had been taken as a slave some time ago and sold to the Zingaran expedition. Dahab explained how the expedition had dug their way to the underground warrens of the city. There they had found a tomb with ancient sarcophagi, filled to the roof with gold and gems. Nefertari had betrayed the others there, summoning something to feed on their flesh. Dahab was the only one to escape. He had hid for two days among the ruins and seen her leave the day before. During the night, the dead of Pteion had come for him and their relentless pursuit drove him to the Nemedians.

Knowing that Nefertari had left Pteion was both a relief and a disappointment for the Nemedians. Yet the most important piece of knowledge the Darfar could tell was that the Zingaran cultists had found a water source somewhere underground. Dahab had never been there, but the Zingarans had brought fresh water from underground every day. No slave had been trusted with the location of the spring or stream. Thus the group agreed they would go look for the water once they had rested – though a gleam of avarice started to lighten the eyes of Noam and Tyrus when Dahab described the riches below…

The morning came, relentlessly hot. Strange sounds had continued to echo through the night, but no further patrols of dead soldiers attacked the living intruders. The men drank their last drops of water, gathered their gear and marched down to the pungent darkness of the underground. Wandering through the dark corridors, the heros descended deeper and deeper into the bowels of Pteion. The very stone around them changed to hues of green, with faint incriptions in Old Stygian on the walls. Sometimes strange, distant cries echoed around them. Several slopes leading downwards had been crossed with faint lines of silver the heroes dared not to cross.

Finally the four plunderers saw ahead a circular room illuminated by a faint glow from green stones within the ceiling. Three other doorways beckoned in the sides of the chamber. Middle of the room was a small altar completely covered by ancient coin. As the heroes stepped inside, the entrances were blocked by heavy pieces of stone. Dahab exclaimed this was the route to the great tomb, but nothing like this had happened before. The walls of the chamber were inscribed with strange, flowing script unlike anything the Nemedians had ever seen. On the door blocks was inscribed strange poems in Old Stygian. Each door had a small block of stone that could be pushed. Alcemides suggested they should push the blocks in a specific order. Small holes on the walls suggested that a wrong order would be punished lethally.

After longs moments on contemplation, Noam remembered details of the story told by Tawil At’Umr in Khemi. The idea proved out to be correct and after pressing the door blocks in order, they all rumbled into the walls. Once inside, Dahab showed the Nemedian the way through the labyrinthine tunnels. The walls on the way were of green stone inscribed with the same serpentine script. Illustrated scenes showed men with the heads of a snakes labouring among mountains and trees, the raising of strange buildings and strange temples. Scrawny ape-like men worked as their slaves and the creatures bowed before idols of a great snake. Then a strange star came to the sky, the same star which had haunted Noam’s dreams. Some of the serpent-priests bowed down before the star in secret and inscribed a familiar sign – the golden sign on their foreheads. Then came a war between the followers of the great snake and those who bowed before the star. The star shone on the sky and the great cities were broken in to ruin. Those of the serpent-men who bowed before the star masked themselves with the faces of men and stayed under the stars. The others fled the baleful star underground, turning away from it and the golden sign. The inscriptions left the men silent and thoughtful.

Suddenly the group found themselves in a great chamber glittering with gold. Sacrophagi of all sizes was stacked on the walls, decorated with gold, gems and precious stones. Yet the great chamber was a site of great slaughter. Corpses were tossed all around the floor – and even high on the walls. Many were ripped apart, cleaved in two, heads and limbs missing. All had small round wounds in their flesh and were in a state of advanced decay – far more rotten than corpses two days old should have been in the dry, cool air. The sight and the stench were terrible. Noam and Tyrus admired the treasures along the walls, barely noticing the carnage – but Alcemides and Dahab convinced them that water was a priority, so the four men left the chamber the same way they had come to seek the source of water.

Wandering through the dark corridors, the heroes quickly lost their sense of time. Only by thirst and hunger they knew hours must have passed – yet only empty chambers and tunnels could be found. Then a strange sound pierced the dusty air, hysterical laugher of a woman ending in loud sobbing. It approached from a slope leading somewhere down in to the dry darkness. Not wanting to meet the laughing creature, the heroes rapidly moved to the opposite direction. Yet the laughter and the sobbing followed them, the distance of the sounds only diminishing after a long burst of running. While the men stopped to catch their breath, Alcemides heard something extraordinary – the sound of a running water.

The heroes followed the acute ears of the half-pict to an underground orchard of some kind. Strange and fantastic fruit and vegetable grew in pots of green stone, among small channels of running water. The men quickly drank themselves full, then filled all their containers with water. Only then did they inspect the fantastic garden in detail, noticing how among the trees and gardens prowled small, venomous snakes. Picking a fruit from the garden might prove to be a fatal mistake. Moving among the channels and vegetation in awe, the heroes were suddenly startled by the sound of insane laughter close by. Sneaking among the pots, they saw a crawling, shaking figure blocking entrance to the garden. The laughing, sobbing creature had found them, but for some reason, would not or could not enter the hall. The men huddled together in fear, doubting the effect of steel on the abomination. Finally Noam became tired of the planning and simply charged forward with a demon-fire in hand. The bomb hit the perfect spot and the crawling horror exploded in a shower of goo. The heroes quickly fled, dragging as much water as they could with them.

Back on the surface, the men stashed most of the water in an intact ruin, then pondered what to do. Noam and Tyrus wanted to go to the tomb and loot gold and gems. Alcemides thought it to be madness. They had seen the corpses, they had seen what the Guardian could do. Looting the chamber would surely awaken the Guardian, he argued, resulting in the deaths of them all. They should just leave while they still could. Despite dark grumblings of the half-pict, the others decided to return to the chamber and in the end, Alcemides came along.

Back in the chamber, Dahab, Noam and Tyrus started to climb along the stacked sarcophagi and laborously cut loose golden ornaments and jewels. It was slow, dangerous and hard work. As time went on, a slowly increasing sense of dread fell on the heroes. Alcemides wanted no part in looting and instead paced on the floor of the chamber like a caged beast. Finally he declared he would not stay in the chamber to be killed with the rest. He would go to the surface and wait for the rest near the water stash. If they were not back before sunrise, he would leave without them. With those words he left alone.

After a while, distant sounds of struggle carried to the chamber. The plunderers left their tools to investigate and found Alcemides naked and paralyzed on the ground. His clothing and equipment was laid neatly on the ground near him. Several bitemarks adorned his body. There were puddles of blood around, but no sign of the attackers. The others carried Alcemides back to the chamber and continues the looting while he recovered. The half-pict claimed he had been attacked by serpent-men and one of them had been about to devour him alive, when sounds of the approaching heroes had sent them fleeing. The others continued looting and, as the sense of growing dread was becoming unbearable, decided they had enough. As they prepared to leave, Dahab heard muffled cries from a sarcophagus on the floor level. The men pried it open and from inside burst forth a weeping Korzetta.

Mewling and gibbering, the young Korzetta had been obviously driven insane by what he had seen. With froth on his lips, the Zingaran rambled on about the Guardian of Pteion and how Nefertari had given the cultists to it in exchange for ancient tablets of stone. He laughed and gurgled about the Golden Lord and how the stars would soon be right again. Pus trickled down his forehead. Interrogating him provided little, but the heroes nevertheless decided to take him to the surface. Just as they were gathering the loot carved from the sarcophagi, the bronze double doors at the end of the hall were blasted open. Forth beyond the doors blew a black wind, bringing with it dark dust and a terrible stench. While the others hurried to gather as much loot as they could carry, Alcemides noticed how the golden sign had formed on Korzetta’s forehead. Not wanting to take any chances, he stabbed the man in the heart. As the corpse hit the ground, it began to writhe and pulsate, as if something was trying to break through from within. The heroes now had two good reasons to run and so they did, like they never had before.

Luck or fate guided them through the labyrinthine tunnels, the black wind blowing at their back and brought them on the surface. It was evening and the ruins were silent. Hurrying, the heroes headed for the edge of the city. There they realised the city limits were now blocked by packs of hyenas, seeminlgy on purpose, as if the animals were guided by some malignant intelligence. Alcemides, who had taken nothing from the ruins, simply walked past the animals, which were content to sniff his clothing and then step aside. After a moment of consideration, Dahab threw his portion of gold and gems on the ground and followed Alcemides. When Noam and Tyrus tried to follow him, they were immediately attacked and had to retreat. As night started to fall, Alcemides and Dahab camped on the ridge outside the city, while Noam and Tyrus pondered their next move. They were obsessed with their newly gained wealth and not willing to leave it. The two Nemedians camped on top of an ancient wall, where Tyrus sought power from the hallucinatory stupor of the black lotus. He hoped that the drug would give him the strength to break through the hyenas in the morning with his sorcery. The dead of Pteion helplessly patrolled the streets for the night, unable to find a way to reach the top of the wall.

As morning came, Noam and Tyrus made a run for it. Tyrus summoned a clying stench from the underworld around him, which kept most of the common hyenas in bay. However, the larger ones attacked through it, assaulting the two men viciously. They had to fight their way every step and soon had deep bites over their bodies. Finally Dahab charged to help his companions, later followed by Alcemides. The heroes managed to fight their way on the ridge, but not without losses, as a large hyena severed the leg of the Darfar with a mighty bite. Dahab was left dying in the desert sands, the others running for their life. As the three men reached the statues marking the boundary around Pteion, the last curse of the damned city was released upon them. A black, howling wind launched from the ruins and whipped them with its foul touch. All three could feel their flesh rot and muscles wither, as the wind drank their very life. Yet still they managed to stagger past the statues and the wind of death died away. They had escaped the grasp of Pteion the Damned and left it howling in impotent rage for months to come, echoing in the ears of every sorcerer in the know through the whispers of the night.

Drunken ramblings of Alcemides

After a pointless trek through the Stygian sands we finally reached Noam’s goal, the sandy demon’s asshole called Pteion. I was forced to visit this cursed city because of Noam’s feverish babblings. I think I had gone somewhat mad from his yammering and stories about scorpions and power, but I hoped my months-long suffering would now stop and he would realize his own foolishness.

All we could see was forgotten ruins in the middle of demon-haunted nowhere. Seeing the anticipation of my mentally decayed companions, I could only think of my own death in the claws of some nameless beast.

We found some remains of other fools and looted their water before entering the bowels of curse-ridden stone arse. I don’t remember much of what happened after that because I woke up in a dark, deep pit with Noam and Tyrus. I felt like two Stygian ships had rammed my head from opposite sides – not that I was really surprised. At least I was still alive. I wish not to describe all the death-traps, monsters and even sorcerous wonders we saw there but the end of our visit started with us standing knee-deep in scraps of dead men in a room filled with treasure. I took no part in plundering and just wanted to finally leave. I walked out when Noam and Tyrus had totally lost their senses and pried off gems from some sarcofagus.

Sneaking up the corridors, I met a strange woman called Red Sonja. It was confusing – I had met her once in Stygia, I knew she was a mercenary but there was no way she could’ve come this far – so this was most likely a ruse. I don’t remember all the things said and done but when I finally tried to cut her down she was lightning-fast and hard to hit. In combat she showed her true face, that of a serpent, and I was soon surrounded by similar creatures. Fighting off the walking snakes felt like a lotus dream. I cut them down in dozens but they kept coming and finally their poison drained my strength and I fell down senseless. I woke up naked with Tyrus and Noam looming over me. I don’t think they bought my serpent-story even though I never lie about my accomplishments – I have no need to!

The two oafs helped me up and took me back to their beloved abattoir. They had found one live Zingaran noble from some sarcofagus. He started sprouting tentacles or oozing slime or something other suspicious so I struck him down. I think this was the last straw as it sent Noam and Tyrus running for the surface. Outside the ruins were besieged by giant hyenas, some of them larger than full-grown bulls. I ran through the pack and they fearfully bowed down as I was not a soft-headed witch. Tyrus and Noam feared the beasts and they remained inside for one night. I waited for them one night with a runaway slave we found earlier. He was ripped in half in a battle the next day when I liberated my companions from the hyenas.

Even while running away from Pteion we were pelted with curses and death-spells. I must thank my forest-bred vitality for surviving the barrage of sorcery. Surprisingly Noam and Tyrus survived too. No matter, I thought to myself, and led them toward Shem.

Session XIX: Pteion the Damned
Some things should stay buried

Five Nemedians had come to the silent city of Erkulum, but only four left towards the southern deserts. Strange madness had fallen upon Barathus, filling him with religious zeal. He spoke of portents and signs – how the snake-goddess Ishiti had saved them in the city of scorpions. In return, the goddess would require service. Barathus declared his will to serve the bestial goddess and no amount of convincing could change his mind. With heavy hearts, the other Nemedians left Barathus on the steps of an imposing basalt temple.

Journey south was hard for the companions. The days were filled with burning heat and the nights with freezing cold. The camels were strange beasts they were not used to ride or handle. Noam kept preaching about the wonders of Pteion till everyone else was tired of his voice. After five days of hard travel, the men arrived upon a desert oasis. Camping there was a small group of Stygian nomads. They turned out to be friendly enough after some bread was shared. Of Pteion, the nomads could tell little. They knew the place to be haunted and avoided it. Bravest of them had sometimes went close enough to see the area, which was but ancient ruins sunken in desert sands. Hyenas of considerable size patrolled the area. The nomads knew of a caravan mostly composed of foreigners which had gone the same way several weeks ago.

The following days were filled with anticipation and dread. According to Tawil At’Umr, the city was far older than people remembered. Once it had been the headquarters of the Black Ring. When the Hyborian barbarians attacked Stygia, the dark sorcerers unleashed terrible fury upon them. So mighty were their spells that the Hyborians were driven back north – and the very land around Pteion devastated. So the sorcerers abandoned Pteion and set west to Kheshetta. Yet before the Black Ring, Old Stygians had performed their unspeakable rites in there. Before the Giant-Kings, it had been sanctuary of the Snakes Who Walk. Perhaps even before the scaled folk, there had been a city in the very same spot, now buried under the sands of time.

After a windy desert night, the Nemedians found themselves camped right besides an ancient stone road. Sweeping winds had uncovered it and Noam convinced the others it was a sign. The city itself wanted the Nemedians to find it. After a half a days travel, the companions were standing on an ridge overlooking a plain filled with ruins. The ruins were surrounded by ancient statues, partly buried in the sand, arranged in a circle. As they passed between the statues, the sorcerers felt a jolt of power, as if they had passed an invisible wall. A few sections of the ancient city walls still stood erect. Behind them, only a handful of buildings had even one wall left. Hyenas, both small and very large, lazily lounged among the rocks and broken monuments. The sight was one of desolation and ancient tragedy, not splendor and riches Noam had described for months.

While surveying the ruins, Dionysos suddenly spotted a lonely rider speeding furiously through the desert towards northeast. It was too far to make out details, but the figure was riding away from Pteion, hard as if all the demons of hell were on his (or her) tail. A small argument broke out among the men – perhaps intercepting the rider would provide them with valuable information. Finally the Nemedians agreed to leave the lone rider in peace and instead investigate the city carefully. They suspected that the cult had reached the city before them and might have an ambush laid in wait for them.

Observing the ruins was fruitless. Thus the men decided to advance down to Pteion the Damned. Nothing moved among the broken stone, though there were signs of recent inhabitation here and there. From the most intact buildings the companions found camp sites. A large number of people had obviously stayed there just a day ago at most – and left all their things behind. In one of the buildings Alcemides found a bloody ritual altar and a room filled with the bloodless corpses of black men. A few had been dead for weeks, but the most recent a few days at most.

Among southern parts of Pteion the Nemedians found foundations of an ancient temple. A huge hole had been dug through the stone. An improvised ramp lead down into the darkness below. After a short discussion, the companions left their animals in an almost intact building. Then they collected barrels of water from the other camp sites and hid them with the animals. After having closed down the openings so no hyena could get inside, they descended down into the true Pteion. Then the darkness swallowed them whole.

Alcemides, Noam and Tyrus woke in pungent darkness, bodies aching like after a beating. Fumbling around with a barely controlled panic, they finally managed to light a torch. They were at the bottom of a pit and covered with fine, white mist. Dionysos was nowhere to be seen. Climbing out of the pit proved out to be bit of a challenge. Alcemides and Tyrus both slipped and fell back a few times. Finally Noam managed to scale the wall and pull the others up with the help of a rope. Soon the men realised they were lost somewhere in an underground warren they had never seen. Faded geometric inscriptions decorated walls of dark green stone. It was as if hours had been wiped clean from their memory. Perhaps Dionysos had lead them in to a trap.

Wandering through the corridors, the Nemedians suddenly heard distant voices shouting to each other in Zingaran. Guided by the echoes, they found a strange chamber. Two dozen Zingaran men labored weakly, building an idol of some sort from bricks piled against the wall. Several seemed too weak from thirst to do little but crawl – but they still tried to help. As the men stepped in the chamber, Noam and Tyrus were overtaken by a strange obsession. They charged to join the Zingarans in building the idol, suddenly working together as if they had been known each other for years. No amount of pleads, insults or threats seemed to return them to their senses. Finally Alcemides knocked both men unconscious and dragged them away from the chamber. Back in the hallway, they were free from the compulsion, but left with a feeling of unexplainable dread about the idol.

Whatever the purpose of the idol chamber was, it was luckily located near the ramp out. Climbing up, they realised the sun was about to set. They had lost most of the day – a gap in their memories which would never be fixed. Not wishing to brave the tunnels at night, the Nemedians made haste to their shelter. Inside, it was obvious Dionysos had been there. One camel and a large portion of supplies was missing. The Acheronian half-breed had taken a mount and left somewhere towards north, judging from the tracks. As the darkness was about to fall on them, the trio decided not to pursue him.

Night came and with it, the ancient city seemed to come back to life. Guards heard stranger and stranger sounds as the night went on. There was clattering of hooves, sounds of a busy marketplace and the noisy rumbling of chariots speeding through the streets – yet nothing was to be seen. Somewhere after the midnight the sounds became clearer – and were followed by movement. Standing guard on the roof, Noam heard approaching stampade of a marching military unit. Gazing over the ruins he saw an astonishing sight. A full phalanx of soldiers was marching down the street right towards him, breastplates and spear-tips gleaming in the starlight, banners fluttering in a wind he could not feel.

Noam quickly alerted Alcemides and Tyrus, who hastily armed themselves and joined Noam on the roof. As the phalanx approached, it seemed to age rapidly – gone were the banners, gone was the gleam from the armor, declining was their number. Instead it was a troop grinning skeletons in ancient equipment and before them ran for his life a naked black man.

From the Memoirs of Tyrus the First

When Dionysos left, I felt regret moreso because there would be less souls to share the risk, than for his supposed betrayal that Alcemides and Noam were fretting over. If Dionysos had truly planned to disappear or had become certain that Pteion would mean death for all of us, he would have taken the scrolls with him. There was no indication that the stash was even touched, so I was practically certain that the young pervert had merely faced some temporary obstacle. We would see him again, but under what terms and when, I didn’t know.

At that time, my mind was more focused on Nefertari and on how to beat her. It never crossed my mind that she could have left already, despite the bleak encounters with the statue-builders. Everything on the camp suggested that it had been used the very morning, and the vile trollop would probably ambush us in the corridors when we least expected it.

The coming morning and Dahab’s eyewitness account would change our minds, but it seemed that merely surviving the night couldn’t be taken for granted.